In Parashah Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel (“striven with God”) (Genesis 32:4-33). He is reconciled with his brother Esau, now a powerful chieftain (Genesis 33:1-17). Jacob purchases land and settles in the vicinity of Shechem [modern Nablus]. Jacob’s sons slaughter the men of Shechem in a dispute over their sister Dinah. (Genesis 34:1-34). Jacob buries the household gods remaining in his camp, and then his mother Rebecca. Rachel dies in childbirth, delivering Benjamin. One of Leah’s sons seduces Bilhah (Rachel’s servant-turned-concubine), and Jacob and Esau meet again to bury Isaac (Genesis 35:1-23). After so much death, the portion concludes with an extended recitation of the lineage of Esau’s descendants (Genesis 36: 1-43).
This week I wonder about the disturbing narrative of the encounter with Shechem. Jacob purchases land and settles in the vicinity of Shechem [modern Nablus]. Jacob’s daughter Dinah is greatly loved by, and seduced by, the prince of Shechem, who seeks to marry her. The men of Shechem offer to pay whatever bride price is necessary to secure the marriage and unite the clans. Jacob’s sons scheme against the men of Shechem: they demand circumcision of all adult males as the bride price, then slaughter the men of Shechem as they recover and loot the town of all women, livestock and other property (Genesis 34:1-34).
The story of Dinah and Shechem is seldom discussed in religious school, sometimes omitted from bible story collections, and infrequently addressed by modern commentators. Reuben’s intimacy with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah was similarly excised in traditional practice: the Mishnah taught that the story should be read in the synagogue but not translated. (Mishnah Megillah 4:10; Babylonian Talmud Megillah 25a).
I am especially interested in the “incident at Schechem”, not merely because it is avoided, but on account of its central location, symmetrically framed by two pairs of episodes. The stories of Jacob and Esau, and Jacob and God sit at the outer margins: the parshah opens with Jacob’s anticipation of meeting his brother (“And Jacob sent messengers before him to Esau his brother in the land of Seir, the steppe of Edom.” Genesis 32:4. Alter transl., p.177), and closes with the recitation of Esau’s legacy (“These are the chieftains of Edom by their settlements in the land of their holdings-that is, Esau, father of Edom.” Genesis 36:40. Alter transl., p.205). Within these episodes with his brother are Jacob’s two direct encounters with God, when he wrestles for his name, and when he receives his blessing.
None of Jonathan Sacks’ commentaries on Vayishlach for the past five years (which are those available online) address Dinah. Past URJ commentaries similarly avoid this story. Similarly, the AJWS essay by Carol Towarnicky focuses on the theme of reconciliation (so appropriate with the approaching Annapolis peace conference), but not Dinah. JTS commentaries by Chancellor Ismar Schorsch circle around the narrative indirectly. In 1995, Chancellor Schorsch considered the implications of intermarriage as the burden of the story; that tradition often explains the massacre as a response to the risks of intermarriage between the clans, but he noted the irony of the namesake of the people, Jacob’s son Judah, having married a Canaanite woman, and the ways in which the ancient rabbinic tradition (Rabbis Yehoshua and Akiva) neutralized the prohibitions against mingling (and marrying) with other nations. In 1999, he skirted the massacre to focus on Jacob’s purchase of land in Shechem to make a home, the contributions of exiled Jews to Gentile communities. In 2004, he noted the way the story distinguishes between the sexual morays of the two communities, but also the moral ambiguity – the narrative is followed by Reuben’s sexual relationship with his father’s concubine, and much later, the “heartening display of self-criticism” of Jacob’s condemnation the sons’ responsible for the massacre of the men of Shechem. In 2002, JTS Rabbi Marc Wolf discussed the positive and negative reasons for silence in the face of atrocity – the need to reflect and respond intelligently and reasonably.
This week the contemporary relevance of Genesis’ patriarchal narrative seems explicit, and my reflections on Vayishlach are simple. What strikes me about the story is traditional rabbinic avoidance of the horror of the massacre, the denial of the feelings of the victims. I wonder how it is that so many Jews devote themselves to the memory of atrocities committed against our community and persist in mistrust of Arabs and Palestinians on the basis of a history of conflict since the Renaissance, if not since 1948. And yet we fail to realize the extent to which our own text describes events that burden others – like the descendants of Schechem – with their own historical memory of deception, injustice and violence at the hands of our traditional ancestors, and contemporary Israeli Jews. Our own text transmits our history of receiving and committing profound transgressions. As the Annapolis conference approaches, I can only hope that modern Jews acknowledge that both tradition and contemporary history teach us that other peoples carry a cultural memory of oppression and injury, and that fairness requires recognition of this fact, so that peace can be measured justly.
Justice, justice, you shall pursue. (Deuteronomy 16:20)